Announcing Our New Name… The Fine Print!
The name may be new, but the mission remains the same: deliver media reporting about New York City you can’t read anywhere else
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I’m proud to introduce our new name: The Fine Print. Its connotations are a little bit literary, a little bit inky. But the most common association is the small type on offers and forms that tells you what you’re really signing, the little details that count the most. That, too, fits our mission, which remains the same. I started The Fine Print because I’d noticed that even though the internet was producing more and more content, it was getting harder and harder to find relevant information — which for me includes a healthy dose of media reporting that looks closely and carefully, perhaps a touch obsessively, at the industry that I’ve been a part of for over two decades.
But why change our name? That’s a bit of a media story itself. We launched as Off the Record, which was the name of a defunct column in a newspaper, The New York Observer, that no longer exists. The company that purchased and shut down that paper claims they own the trademark to the name. We disagree. But winning a trademark dispute requires a lot of time for court proceedings and money for legal fees, two things that a bootstrapped startup does not have.
The New York Observer was purchased in 2006 by Jared Kushner. I worked at the paper from 1998 to 2002, wrote the Off the Record column for two of those years, and never worked for him. The story of what he did to one of New York City’s great papers is best told by those who were there, which they have over the years. It was part of a family saga that, frankly, the old Observer was made to cover. As the New York Times announcement of the sale reported, Kushner’s New Jersey real estate developer father, Charles, was at the time serving “two years in prison after pleading guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign donations. He also admitted to hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law and having a videotape of the encounter sent to his sister, the man’s wife, in an attempt to get back at her for cooperating with a federal investigation into his business activities.” Jared, then 25 and just a few years out of Harvard, was rehabilitating the family name. He’d marry Ivanka Trump three years later.
As a proud, if dismayed alum of the paper, what was clear looking in from the outside was that Kushner wanted to have as little as possible to do with the old New York Observer. In 2013, he appointed Ken Kurson, a former ghostwriter for Rudolph Giuliani turned Republican political operative, as the paper’s editor. Sometime around 2014 or 2015 (memory of the exact date is foggy for those who were there at the time), Kurson quietly ended the Off the Record column. It fit a pattern of the paper shedding association with its prior roots. In 2015, Joseph Meyer, the husband of Jared’s sister Nicole who had been named CEO of the company, announced they were dropping New York from their brand. “You’re looking at something brand new,” he wrote, calling “the new Observer … a leading digital luxury publisher.” Around this time, a job listing for a new editorial director for what was then being called Observer.com included the line, “print need not apply.”
In 2016, three days after Election Day, after the paper had served its purpose — Kushner used it to promote his father-in-law’s presidential campaign, penning an editorial arguing “Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic and he’s not a racist” — the company announced it was shutting it down, completing “the full digital transition of the New York Observer to our premier national online platform, Observer.com.” In the waning days of Kushner’s father-in-law’s time in the White House, his own father received a pardon, as did Kurson, who had been arrested in 2020 for cyberstalking stemming from a divorce in 2015.
The New York Observer trademarked “Off the Record” as a “General Feature Section/Column of a Newspaper for General Circulation” in 2000 and renewed it in 2010. That extension expired on April 10, 2020. By the time the trademark expired, the column had been out of use for at least five years, and the newspaper it appeared in hadn’t been printed for nearly four years. And, to this non-lawyer’s reading, trademark law is clear on the matter: The Lanham Act, which is the main U.S. trademark law, says, “Nonuse for 3 consecutive years shall be prima facie evidence of abandonment. ‘Use’ of a mark means the bona fide use of such mark made in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.”
What I was unaware of, though, is that there’s a grace period of 18 months after a trademark’s expiration for someone to file a “Declaration of Use” in case a renewal filing had been forgotten. But as the law says, this still requires attesting to a “bona fide” use of a trademark. Since there had been no Off the Record column for six or seven years, I thought I was in the clear. But just a week before the final deadline for the grace period on October 5, Observer Holdings LLC filed a “Declaration of Use” and planted a page in the back of the Commercial Observer (a trade magazine, not a general circulation newspaper, for what that’s worth) in which an article that had appeared earlier on Observer.com without any reference to “Off the Record” was laid out to look like the old New York Observer. No purported Off the Record column has since appeared in the Commercial Observer or Observer.com.
The irony is that I actually wish their declaration of use was bona fide. I think the New York City media community needs more media reporting, and I wish there had been an Off the Record these last seven years since the column was killed. If the Observer is going to bring a media column back, the more the better!
When I wrote the Off the Record column for The New York Observer, every trip to the newsstand before hopping on the subway in the morning was filled with apprehension about being scooped by the dozen or so other full-time media reporters then working the beat. My first and only job was to break news that people in New York City media cared about. As the paper’s editor-in-chief, Peter W. Kaplan, drilled into his young reporters: “Sensibility is cheap, reporting is expensive.”
These days, though, after every news organization, whether a legacy title or digital native, has fully absorbed a decade worth of best practices in optimizing for search engines and social media, that kind of beat reporting is in decline. There are still many good media reporters out there, but changes in the media ecosystem have incentivized them to chase the kinds of stories that appeal to the biggest possible audience. This has spurred a lot of reporters to hunt for new chapters of broader cultural and social conversations on their beats, often leaving the finer details about what’s going on within media organizations and the decisions made in newsrooms and boardrooms to float by.
That’s where The Fine Print comes in. We are not another outlet for media commentary. We’re not in the “takes” business. We are about reporting, first and foremost. And because our only revenue comes from reader subscriptions — please subscribe today! — we are building a business model that can sustainably produce media reporting relevant to our readers that you can’t find anywhere else.
Some of the excellent media reporting you may have missed in The Fine Print…
By Andrew Fedorov
Getting a little magazine off the ground is never easy, but The Drift launched at the start of a pandemic. Its founders, Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, are in their late 20s, and as many of the articles they publish emphasize, they’ve come of age in times when despair doesn’t seem totally unreasonable. Their willingness to confront that with a spirit of exuberance and fun has won them a loyal following. Drift tote bags and baseball caps have become ubiquitous in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, and their offbeat, incisive pieces on topics as diverse as fighting forest fires as an environmental anthropologist, wealth inequality among millennials, everything wrong with Anthony Fauci, literary citation and search engines, the underlying politics of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and the argument for using a lower-case b in Black, have not only fueled new conversations but inscribed and examined ongoing ones that more established publications are slower to pick up on. Which is precisely what the little magazine tradition is about. … >> READ THE REST
‘YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHERE CLICKS BECOME THE COIN OF THE REALM ’
By Sophie Krichevsky
Before “fake news,” the laziest way to insult a journalist was to accuse them of doing something just “for the clicks.” After all, the content creation arms race has turned mainly on developing novel methods of juicing the stats. Slide shows proliferated since every photo counted as a page view. So did pagination, magically turning one long (or vaguely long-ish) article into six. Some publishers, like Gawker, tried to enlist writers’ egos by putting the page view stats at the top of every story they published and paying bonuses to the writers who got the biggest numbers. Others, like Upworthy, hacked reader psychology by deploying a “curiosity gap” headline style which, rather than summarizing a story’s contents, deliberately obscured them. A “big board” showing a real-time Chartbeat dashboard became de rigueur for any mid-2010s newsroom wanting to show it had fully absorbed the lessons of the digital revolution. But a decade or two later, the use of metrics in newsrooms — and specifically their use to reward and punish journalists — is under fresh scrutiny by media unions. … >> READ THE REST
‘WHICH HAT HE WORE WILL NEVER BE KNOWN’
By Andrew Fedorov
After Bryan Goldberg, CEO of BDG which publishes Bustle and Gawker, won an auction of one of Napoleon’s bicorne hats with a €1,222,500 bid (which, when you add in Sotheby’s commissions, translates to about $1.75 million), much of the playful coverage drew comparisons between the BDG founder and the emperor himself. But, in some ways, a closer parallel can be drawn between Goldberg and the hat’s original owners, Scotland’s Shaw Stewart line of baronets, one of whom, per its provenance, bought it as a souvenir while visiting France. Less than a month after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814 and the beginning of his exile to the island of Elba, 27-year-old Michael Shaw Stewart, not yet a baronet, set off for Europe. Over the two years of his grand tour, he passed through France, Germany, Italy, and Elba, where he met Napoleon’s mother and brother but missed the former emperor who had already set off to reclaim his throne in the Hundred Days War of 1815. On August 26, 1814, Shaw Stewart toured the Palais Brühl-Marcolini in Dresden, where Napoleon had briefly lived the year before. The keeper of the palace claimed to have been given the hat by Napoleon’s valet and also told the young visitor that Napoleon had worn the hat seven years earlier during his victory at the Battle of Friedland and at the signing of the Treaties of Tilsit, which led to an alliance between France and Russia. He offered to sell it for two English guineas, which would be about $200 today. In his diary, Shaw Stewart called the hat “the most valuable and curious acquisition by far I have yet made in my travels.”… >> READ THE REST
‘NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO BE MISERABLE TO BE IN THE COOL KIDS CLUB’
By Andrew Fedorov
The press tour for Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel To Paradise, published on January 11, has propelled the editor-in-chief of T, the style magazine of The New York Times, into the center of literary chatter. As the follow-up to her bestselling and much-discussed 2015 novel A Little Life, which was nominated for the National Book Awards and Booker Prize, sharp critics have been champing at the bit to tear into Yanagihara’s fiction. At Vulture, Andrea Long Chu noted that the novelist has a tendency to torture her characters, writing, “one can get the impression that Yanagihara is somewhere high above with a magnifying glass, burning her beautiful boys like ants.” At Harper’s, Rebecca Panovka included listening advice for the audiobook of A Little Life: “Pro tip: at 2.6x speed … the more gratuitous self-harm scenes take on a pleasantly businesslike quality.” A New Yorker profile by D.T. Max, which focused heavily on Yanagihara’s personal experiences, writing habits, and the decor of her Soho apartment, elevated her into a kind of personality that Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai perceptively placed in the tradition of the imperial magazine editor. To some, like Jezebel’s Becca Schuh, the promotional blitz has only endeared readers to the writer. “Hanya Yanagihara Is Eccentric and Self-Indulgent. So What?” was the headline on her piece. While the New Yorker feature devoted a paragraph to what Yanagihara’s employees at her day job think of her (an anonymous staffer described her ethos as “I don’t complain — you don’t complain”), members of the T editorial staff have been dismayed about what’s been left out of the public portrait. After all, eccentricities and self-indulgences are not the qualities that typically define good bosses. … >> READ THE REST
By Andrew Fedorov
There’s a photograph of David Dunlap in the Museum at The Times on the 15th floor of The New York Times building, which opened in September. In it, the former reporter who spent more than 40 years in the newsroom is wearing a double-layer hazmat suit, a full-face respirator, and a hard hat. As the museum’s lead curator, Dunlap is a bit bashful about that photo. “I could not persuade my colleagues to eliminate it,” he told The Fine Print. “The photographer, Fred Conrad, and I were the only two journalists that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation permitted to visit the contaminated Deutsche Bank Building at the World Trade Center site before it was demolished.” Since Dunlap joined The Times in 1975, as a clerk for columnist and former executive editor James “Scotty” Reston, he’s hoovered up arcana about the institution and become a walking archive of the paper’s past. “Under Reston’s wing, I was immersed from the outset in Times history and loved it and couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “I was completely bitten and smitten.” When The Times moved from its old building off Times Square in 2007 to its new headquarters on 41st Street, he thought of all the artifacts that could be lost in the shuffle. “Journalists at The Times generally have a very proprietary sense about the place and a pride. They have keepsakes that commemorate milestones,” he said. “I also thought if I got hit by a bus, no one would know how many riches there are. It could all get scattered and lost.” … >> READ THE REST